Editor's Note: No Limits
Live webcasts of President Obama's inauguration revealed the promise and limitations of streaming media.
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On Jan. 20, I did the same thing I’m guessing most everyone in the online video industry did: I fired up all of my computers—laptop and desktop, Mac and PC—and got ready to check out how the various video services would handle live streaming of the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States. I logged onto the CNN.com/Facebook feed on my Mac mini and Sky News HD on my MacBook, and I bounced among the official Presidential Inauguration Committee site, CBSNews.com, and Qik (Ooh! Ashton Kutcher’s feed!) on my PC. I also launched the newly released Ustream.tv app on my iPhone.

I was almost ready for the big moment, Obama’s speech at noon EST. Almost, but not quite. I didn’t just want to see how the online video sites fared; I actually wanted to see and hear the speech itself. So I turned on my television and hit "record" on the DVR.

Good thing too. Had I relied on any one of the services I mentioned above—or on the dozens of other sites that were streaming the event live—I never would have gotten to see the speech in its entirety. CNN.com put me into a waiting room with the infuriating message, "Hey, you made it! Unfortunately, so did everybody else," and then made me download the Octoshape P2P plug-in and install Flash Player 10. (Shame on me for not having the latest Flash Player 10 installed; shame on CNN.com and Facebook for not making it obvious ahead of time that it would be required.)

The video from all of the other sites either stuttered or stalled completely at various points, although CBSNews.com and Sky News offered the most consistent and best quality video and sound. Dan Rayburn posted several typically insightful posts on his Business of Video blog (http://blog.streamingmedia.com; search for "inauguration" to find them), and readers responded with dozens of comments about their own experiences trying to watch the event live online.

That the live streaming wasn’t seamless for everyone was no surprise. The numbers are staggering—Akamai reported a peak of 7.7 million simultaneous streams to the various sites it delivers (though not all of them were of the inauguration), CBSNews.com reported nearly 19 million live streams delivered between 6 a.m. and 1 p.m., and MSNBC.com boasted a total of 9 million live streams delivered by 1 p.m. Ustream claimed 3.8 million streams, with a maximum of 400,000 concurrent streams including "tens of thousands" to iPhone users.

Ustream’s feed to my iPhone was delayed about 10 seconds behind the feeds I was getting to my various computers, but when you figure that most people watching on mobile devices are doing so because they have no other option, that’s not so bad. But therein lies the rub: Almost anyone faced with the choice of watching a once-in-a-lifetime event such as a presidential inauguration or a trip by the Arizona Cardinals to the Super Bowl on television versus their PC or mobile phone is going to choose the TV.

TV’s not quite foolproof—astoundingly, my cable provider (Charter) decided that its weekly Emergency Broadcast System test couldn’t wait until after the benediction following Obama’s speech. But as Streaming Media columnist Paul Riismandel noted on Facebook, inauguration day reminded him that "the internet is not ready to replace broadcast TV." That’s a somewhat sobering thought to those who have, as Joel Unickow writes in his Publisher’s Note on p. 12, "overpromised" on what online video is capable of delivering. (Keynote Systems reported that the internet’s top 40 sites slowed down by as much as 60% during the inaugural ceremony.)

Most of us in this industry, though, are both bullish on online video and well aware of its limitations. The very fact that historic events can be watched live over broadband is reason enough for celebration, and most of the media outlets and their content delivery partners delivered no more and no less than they promised. And the ones who really did it right emphasized the things that broadcast and cable television can’t do. The CNN.com/Facebook partnership was brilliant, allowing Facebook users to post and view comments either within their networks or among all of the million-plus Facebook users who watched. While virtual groups can’t replace the experience of sharing an event with people in the flesh, they offer something that smashes social and geographic barriers. Once I "got in" to the CNN.com/Facebook player, I was able to share the experience from my home office in Wisconsin with my son in Minneapolis; colleagues in Illinois, California, and New York (watching on a laptop while traveling on the Long Island Railroad, no less!); and old college friends I haven’t seen in person for a decade. The world is flat, and space and time are curved.

Later that day, I did indeed sit down in front of my television to watch the inauguration ceremony with my wife, relishing the replay of a historic moment while she was watching it for the first time (Damn those workplace firewalls!). But I didn’t regret for a second that I’d spent the actual moment online, all by myself and with millions of others.